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Transforming our energy infrastructure

Almost $2M from CFI will launch the Research Facility for Integrated Building Energy Harvesting Systems
Transforming our energy infrastructure

The Research Facility for Integrated Building Harvesting Systems will be incorporated into the Hatch Centre

Danelle D'Alvise, Research Communications
May 29, 2015


Canada is criss-crossed with hundreds of thousands of energy pathways that transmit electricity, supply natural gas, pipe oil, and transport coal and propane by rail, ship and road to our homes and communities.

According to mechanical engineer Jim Cotton, there are a number of disadvantages with these traditional energy delivery systems.

“Besides large transmission losses when electricity is transported, we are not efficient at capturing the bi-products of energy production – as much as 70% of potential energy is wasted. When you factor in the impact on the environment, the lack of sustainability and our vulnerability to power loss due to weather, it’s clear we need to improve how we use our energy resources.”

The solution? Breaking down what Cotton describes as our current ‘siloed’ energy practice by creating facilities that will harvest electrical, thermal and fuel energy where it naturally converges – in our buildings, neighbourhoods and communities.

With a $1.9M award from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Cotton is part of a McMaster multidisciplinary team* of 16 energy experts undertaking a transformative research project that will establish the Research Facility for Integrated Building Energy Harvesting Systems (ReFIBES), the only test facility of its kind in North America.

The test facility will be designed and fully incorporated into the 24,000-sq. foot Gerald Hatch Centre for Engineering Experiential Learning, currently in the design stage and on track for a fall 2016 completion date. The facility will be a scaled community research tool – a living lab – where engineers, scientists and students will research integrated energy systems for urban use.

A ‘system-of-systems’, ReFIBES combines the study of new materials and devices for energy harvesting with innovative energy sensors, data analysis for resource utilization, control optimization for the human element, while continuously evaluating system efficiency. 

The data collected from the various systems in the building will also be accessible online and shared in real time locally among McMaster research groups, as well as globally with other energy researchers.

With the unique opportunity the future Hatch Centre provides, the project team will be undertaking their research activities in a functioning building, flexible enough to evolve over time as next generation energy technologies are developed.

The facility will also offer the opportunity to explore further improvements in efficiency by coordinating clusters of buildings into “neighbourhood” energy nodes.

"We plan on transforming our energy infrastructure from an energy delivery service to a highly distributed network of integrated building energy systems – essentially looking at buildings as generators,” explains Cotton.

The CFI project will focus on community energy management, community integrated sustainable energy systems and energy harvesting and storage. These three interdependent thematic areas will look at human, weather and environmental factors, while integrating renewable energy such as wind and solar, and the harvesting and storing technologies required to capture and repurpose thermal energy providing enhanced resiliency to the community.

“We’re building on McMaster’s strengths and expertise in energy systems research to provide game-changing improvements to energy resource utilization,” says Mo Elbestawi, vice-president, research & international affairs.  “The Research Facility for Integrated Building Energy Harvesting Systems will lead the way in providing energy solutions that will meet the diverse needs of Canadians, using approaches that are resilient, as well as economically and environmentally sustainable.”

McMaster University was one of 52 research institutions awarded through the CFI’s Innovation Fund, announced today in Ottawa by The Honourable Ed Holder, Minister of State (Science and Technology). The $256 million in support ‘equips universities, colleges and research hospitals across the country with state-of-the-art tools and laboratories where researchers can discover and innovate.’

“In today’s highly competitive research environment, the nation’s researchers need access to the best tools and facilities that will make them stand out,”said Gilles Patry, President and CEO of the CFI. “The Innovation Fund puts them on a path to achieve prominence in the global research enterprise while ensuring their results deliver tangible benefits to Canadians.”

In addition to the ReFIBES project, McMaster researchers Andy Knights, engineering physics, and Graeme Luke, physics, will be participating in projects with lead institutions Queen’s University (Knights) and the University of Victoria (Luke).

*Joining Principal Investigator Jim Cotton on the project team for the Research Facility for Integrated Building Energy Harvesting Systems are: chemical engineer Thomas Adams; mechanical engineers Saeid Habibi , Joe McDermid and Stephen Tullis, electrical & computer engineers Ali Emadi,Shahin Sirouspour; engineering physicists John Preston, and Rafael Kleiman; and computing and software engineer Rong Zheng. Other users/researchers are: Marilyn Lightstone, mechanical engineering; Jeffrey Hoyt,  Gianluigi Botton,and Ken Coley,materials science and engineering; Kevin Dunn, chemical engineering; Nigel Schofield, electrical and computer engineering; Gillian Goward, chemistry.